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Q&A: Arne Duncan Talks Testing, Turnarounds, and ESEA at Age 50

By Alyson Klein — March 25, 2015 7 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has less than two years left in office with the Obama administration, and lots of initiatives in the middle of implementation, including school turnarounds, teacher evaluation through student outcomes, and—oh, yeah—a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both halves of Politics K-12 sat down with him this week. One big take-away? Duncan is really excited that graduation rates have hit a new high and that traditionally overlooked populations of students are making gains. In fact, he brought up the good grad rate news in answer to just about every question we asked him, whether it was on the federal role in education, NCLB waivers, school turnarounds, or Race to the Top. (We edited much of that out, for brevity. But it’s clearly something he wants to hammer home as folks start to take stock of whether NCLB, and the Obama administration’s K-12 policies, have been effective.)

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation. (A few lines have been slightly paraphrased for clarity):

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act turns 50 next month. What do you think we’ve learned over the past 50 years about the federal role? Where do you see it going forward?

Yes, it’s an education law, but it’s a civil rights law. That is at the heart of what this thing is. ... The things that I think make sense for the federal government to be doing ... I think, are one, just a focus on equity. ... For me, that means we would love to see more focus on early-childhood education. ... We would love to increase resources for Title I children. ... We want to continue to be able to turn around underperforming schools. ... [Also] this focus on innovation and sharing best practices and putting resources behind what’s working ... And so [among] those ...a focus on equity and a focus on innovation and a focus on excellence, I think are very appropriate, I would even say critical, for the right federal role.

You’ve mentioned, even as recently as Monday at the Council of Chief State School Officers, that increased aid for Title I and a new investment in prekindergarten are your top priorities for ESEA. But both of these ideas seem unlikely to be embraced by Republicans who are eager to slim down the federal role. So some folks, when they saw those comments said, “Oh, the administration isn’t really interested in reauthorizing this law.” Is that fair? Is that what you were trying to get at?

I just disagree with the premise, because I look at Republican governors all over the country who are putting huge resources behind early-childhood education. And New Mexico, Nevada, Alabama, you go right down the list. ... This is an absolutely bipartisan issue, in the real world. If there wasn’t a demand for this, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to meet that demand ... I don’t think it’s a partisan issue, I mean, I know it’s not. ...We have more Republican governors investing in early-childhood education than we do Democratic. ... The real world is working on this stuff, and we just want to get folks in Washington to look at the real world and meet that need.

The waiver renewals you’re working on now will extend beyond your administration, and I know you’re hoping for a reauthorization of the law. But are you worried, if that reauthorization doesn’t happen, that you have opened the door to the next administration coming in and putting their priorities in place in exchange for getting out of the mandates of NCLB—for instance, expanding school choice?

We have tried to put our best thinking forward. ... I know we’ve done this imperfectly, but I think we’ve done a really good job. ... We try to, as best we can, have the principles of being very tight on goals, but much looser on how we get there, and we’re learning every day how to be a good partner. ...

The easiest [thing] to do would have been to not do waivers. And just [to have] lived with a broken law and our jobs would have all been a lot easier here. But we would have hurt kids, and we came here to help kids, and we feel really proud of what we’ve done. ... Again, the law needs to be fixed. And if somehow the law isn’t, then you hope the next administration builds upon things we did well and corrects some things, does some things better. ...

Obviously, during your first term, standardized tests really formed a backbone of your agenda in policies like teacher evaluation and dramatic school turnarounds, and now you’re talking about paring back the number of tests. Did you have a change of heart here?

I think you’re, I want to say, misremembering. A big thing we did in the waivers from the start was to reduce the focus on a single test score. ... What we did was move away from proficiency, we moved to growth and gain, and what you see in so many state accountability systems is going way beyond a test score and looking at improvements in graduation rates and reductions in dropout rates. Some states look at college-going rates. ... And so, I think, we’ve been actually pretty consistent from day one that, assessing kids annually, we think is important, but it should be a piece of anything and just a piece, and these longer-term indicators we think are hugely important.

But you were the first administration to have a federal mandate to require teacher evaluation through test scores, and so that’s obviously taking high-stakes tests to another level.

I think, again, you’ve got to look at the context. We think the goal of great teaching is to have students learn; and to have student learning be a piece of teacher evaluation, I think, actually gives the profession the respect it deserves. ... Anyone who says that student learning shouldn’t be a part of teacher evaluation actually demeans the profession. ... And again, different states have done this different ways, so we’ve never said there is one way to do this but, yes, we have absolutely said that student learning is the goal of great teaching and great teachers, and that that should be a piece of [evaluations]. ... The real point is better support and feedback for teachers.

Race to the Top was obviously your signature program in your first term. But in some places it’s become a somewhat tarnished brand. Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina have either rethought or changed their standards or tests. And some states are making changes to teacher evaluation, Tennessee being an example. How much influence do you think the administration has in states that got this money, how much influence do you continue to have?

Influence isn’t the goal here. The goal here is increased student achievement, and you see, what I’ve said from day one, is that you see as much reform and progress in states that didn’t get a nickel as states that got hundreds of millions of dollars. .... The goal is raising the bar for all kids and seeing those gaps close.

But I would push back on that to say that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP in half the states that won Race to the Top have stayed level, stagnant, although half of them have gone up. ... I’m wondering if you feel the program has made a difference everywhere.

It’s made a different amount of difference in different places. Some of the places where it’s had the biggest impact is where they didn’t get any money. ... The lesson for me—and we didn’t really understand this going in—while I don’t want to say the money was unimportant ... it was really just creating space and the opportunity for people to do things that they knew were right, but that [were] hard to do or maybe politically difficult, whatever.

You’ve talked a lot about the federal role in turning around low-performing schools. Do you think there has to be a specific percentage of [schools states must identify as needing extra help]? And I’m also wondering when the [third year of the School Improvement Grant] data is coming out?

I don’t know when the SIG data is coming out. ... We need to not just label the problem, we need to not just admire the problem ... we need to do something about it. ... Some [schools] have done an amazing job with [turnarounds]. Some we haven’t seen as much as improvement as we’d like. But at least we’re trying. At least people are in the game. And to be clear ... we did 5 percent [a reference to the percentage of schools the education required states to identify for dramatic turnarounds]... there’s nothing magical [about that percentage]...whether it’s 4 percent or 6 percent ... we’re open to those conversations. ... We’re open on models ... you have to have evidence-based stuff. ... But let’s not just stand by. I promise you we would not be seeing these improvements in dropout rates, in graduation rates, if we just watched or observed or really didn’t do anything about it.

Last question (asked off the cuff, after the official conclusion of the interview): You going to stick around for the end of the [Obama administration]?

(Laughs). Day at a time, baby, day at a time.

Photo: Education Secretary Arne Duncan looks at Attorney General Eric Holder, right, as they meet with the news media following their tour of the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria, Va., last December.

-Cliff Owen/AP-File